Erin Benay

Teaching that values class conversation more than conveying content

Art History’s Erin Benay earns a 2017 John S. Diekhoff Award for Graduate Teaching

Erin Benay’s plans to become a museum curator changed the moment she taught her first class as a graduate student at Rutgers University.

“That was it—I loved it—and knew it immediately,” said Benay, an assistant professor of art history at Case Western Reserve University. “I felt I was good at it—even though it was a four-hour night class on the Renaissance, nobody fell asleep.”

Her current students agree, providing nominations so strong to earn Benay a 2017 John S. Diekhoff Award for Graduate Teaching. She will be recognized along with other award winners during commencement ceremonies May 21.

“Teaching is the part of my job I love the most,” said Benay, of a career that includes international travel for firsthand research of Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces. “I love the theater, performance and physicality of the classroom.”

Trademarks of Benay’s teaching include her haste and honesty in providing feedback on student performance—returning all written work within a week and displaying little shyness in showing how work can improve.

Students also cite how her depth of discussions and encyclopedic command of material pair well in the classroom, where Benay will probe an argument to show its holes and challenge students to ask more questions about their claims.

Benay credits her approach to the influence of her mother, Phyllis Benay, an emeritus professor of expository writing at Keene State College in southern New Hampshire.

“More than anything, she taught me to be so bold as to value conversation more than the imparting of content,” Benay said. “If I don’t get to a painting or sculpture on a certain day, so what? I teach less because of her and engage with my students more.”

In her courses—“Sex, Violence, and Religion in the Art of Caravaggio” and “Doors Wide Shut: The Private Art Collection from Raphael to Rauschenberg,” among others—Benay treats artworks as living objects that accrue or shed meaning with time and context.

Benay helps students connect physical artworks with abstract concepts and distant histories by teaching seminars at the Cleveland Museum of Art and using its collection, library and curatorial staffs.

Earning her PhD in 2009, Benay’s proximity to her days as a student (and job-hunting experience in academia) helps her relate to the needs and worries of her graduate students; she also leads workshops for them on body language, dress and professionalism.

Described as firm but fair by her students, Benay asks them to call her by her first name, in a gesture of trust and mutual respect.

“In a way, the faith I put in my students,” she said, “tries to honor the faith my mentors invested in me.”

The Diekhoff Award caps a momentous academic year for Benay. Last fall, she won a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) fellowship. Late this summer, Benay will take a year of leave to research and write a book on a project titled Italy by Way of India: Routes of Devotional Knowledge in the Early Modern Period.